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Posts Tagged ‘Dustin Hoffman’

So, as you may or may not be aware, of a weekend more often than not I like to take in a movie. Just for a change, you know. Occasionally, most often in the summer, I do find myself in the awkward position of having already seen anything remotely promising. It’s a bit less common for this to happen in the middle of February, but there’s a first time for everything. Basically, I found myself facing the problem of the only two significant new films available being Fifty Shades of Grey and Shaun the Sheep.

So what’s the problem, you may be wondering. Well, I hate to say it, but sometimes I am perhaps a bit more concerned with the look of things than I ought to be, and I am fully aware that the only thing that looks worse than a spud-faced man in early middle age turning up to watch a children’s film, unaccompanied, is the same spud-faced man in early middle age turning up to watch a softcore bondage romp, unaccompanied. The nigh-on unthinkable prospect of chickening out of going to the cinema entirely loomed.

Luckily I was directed to the only cinema in Oxford I had yet to partake of, which gives us the opportunity for one of our increasingly-rare editions of New Cinema Review. I have to say that while the Ultimate Picture Palace near the St Clements end of Cowley Road is by no means the most basic cinema I’ve ever been to – that honour still goes to the Island in Lytham St Annes, where the ticket price of £3 a head is absolutely reasonable, given the general quality of the place – it is certainly not far off: only one screen, which opens directly onto the street, a concessions stand in the back of the theatre itself, and toilets under the screen. The seats are not exactly opulent, either, and I’m a little surprised the place hangs on, given it charges roughly the same for its tickets as the still-superior-despite-a-soulless-corporate-makeover Phoenix on the other side of town. But hey: I’m not going to knock the place too much, as it spared me an awkward flogger or fleece moment.

The film I went to see there was Mike Nichols’ famous 1967 comedy-drama, The Graduate. This is one of those movies which seems to have drilled its way into the public consciousness: certainly I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of it, even though I didn’t properly watch it until just the other day. Everyone knows the famous shot of Dustin Hoffman, framed with Anne Bancroft’s stockinged leg, everyone knows the ‘Are you trying to seduce me?’ line, everyone knows the climax in the church, and – of course – everyone knows Simon and Garfunkel’s wonderful songs. But what’s it actually about? Is it really worthy of such fame?

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The film concerns Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman), a young man recently returned from college to the family home somewhere in suburban Los Angeles. His parents are delighted by his academic prowess; he is a credit to them, and his qualms about what he’s going to do next are casually brushed aside. A party in his honour brings him into the orbit of close family friend Mrs Robinson (Bancroft, who’s top billed, by the way), who executes a devastatingly clinical seduction on the lad. (In real life, by the way, the age gap was only about six years, rather than the twenty or so implied in the film.)

Benjamin finds his time with Mrs Robinson is the only thing that he enjoys and looks forward to, but things become much more complicated when the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) returns from her own studies, and he finds himself obliged to take her out on a date. He finds himself very attracted to her, much to the fury of her mother. Is this true love? And, if so, can it find a way?

The first thing that must be said about The Graduate is that it is a very well-made piece of entertainment: what could have been a slightly insipid comedy of sexual manners is given real heart and soul by a combination of elements – the strong performances of all three leads, especially Hoffman, Nichols’ creative direction, and the songs. It’s the latter which give the film its distinctly dreamy quality, although Nichols’ work is also a factor. This is quite an overtly directed film – Nichol’s use of effects like a handheld camera, almost subliminally fast cutting, and fast fades are eye-catching – but this doesn’t feel intrusive. In a strange way this isn’t really a naturalistic film at all, but a kind of fable, and Hoffman’s work reflects this – he starts off as an almost-comically hapless stooge for the other characters, before slowly evolving into more of a rebellious figure. When all three of these elements come together, as in the superbly impressionistic sequence where Benjamin’s summer basically devolves to his stumbling back and forth between the family swimming pool and his trysts with Mrs Robinson, the results are spellbinding.

That said, I have to say I found the first half of the film, concerning Benjamin’s affair with the mother, to be rather stronger and sharper than the second, which depicts his romance with the daughter. Several elements of this are just a bit too contrived to be convincing. The ease with which Elaine is coerced into getting married is rather convenient, as is the way in which Benjamin manages to track her down to the church.

Nevertheless it does feed into the theme of the film, which is probably why it has lasted: The Graduate does capture the feeling of a moment in time like few others, that moment of incipient rebellion which was to lead to the hippie movement, the summer of love, and a thousand acts of dropping out. At the start, one gets the impression that never in his life has Benjamin been considered as a person in his own right: his education appears to have been entirely geared towards starting him in the right sort of career, rather than allowing him self-discovery. His parents parade him as a kind of exhibit or trophy, disregarding his own concerns about his life. Even Mrs Robinson exploits him as a kind of toy – tellingly, we never learn her first name, the implication being that Benjamin has to remain deferent to her on the grounds of her seniority, despite their supposed intimacy.

In short, the first part of the film is about youth being controlled by convention and orthodoxy, with no thought that there could be any other state of affairs. The rest of it is about breaking free – and while Benjamin doesn’t grow his hair or become a stoner, his revolt is pretty comprehensive: he rebels against his parents’ expectations and the idea of graduate school, he rebels against Mrs Robinson’s desire to control him, and, in the climax, he rebels against religion and the convention of marriage by breaking into Elaine’s wedding.

Yet the film is not quite as straightforward as it first appears – endorsing this kind of anarchic behaviour would be a bold step for a studio release in 1967, after all. The film ends on a finely achieved note of ambiguity, as Benjamin and Elaine’s joy at their escape abruptly fades, replaced by – well, it’s hard to say. There is, perhaps, the faintest echo of the earlier idea that Benjamin is really happiest only when living in the moment. As another famous piece of pop culture suggested at around the same time, there is some truth in the notion that it is often better to want than to get, and for me The Graduate seems to suggest that dreaming of something is often preferable to having it. This film may be a crucial piece of 60s pop culture, but it is remarkably down-to-earth, and very cynical, for all that it remains a very funny and entertaining film.

 

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I don’t know about you, but I often come across things that look toweringly silly and almost indisputably a Bad Idea, and the question that inevitably comes to mind is ‘How on earth did this ever happen? Who thought this was in any way a good idea?’ All this shows, of course, is the strangeness that hindsight sometimes lends. Right now, at this moment in time, the idea of an $85m, all-star retelling of of the story of Joan of Arc, starring Milla Jovovich, co-written by the screenwriter of Slade in Flame, and directed by Luc Besson, sounds like an unstoppable disaster in the making. But people clearly thought otherwise in 1999, when such a film was made.

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The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is… well, I’m tempted to say that it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Besson-helmed historical drama, but one of the things I’ve found myself coming back to again and again recently is how frequently your expectations of Luc Besson turn out to be misguided. This is the film which effectively put a stop to Besson’s late-90s career as someone with serious clout in Hollywood, and was indeed followed by a five-year gap in his directorial career, and – possibly this is hindsight again – neither of these things is really a total surprise.

The film is, obviously, set during the Hundred Years War, when the English were doing their best to take over France (I don’t see the problem with this, but Besson clearly feels differently), with things not going too well for the home team. The opens by introducing us to the young Joan (Jane Valentine, who’s actually pretty good), a young girl who is clearly in the grip of some kind of religious obsession, going to church several times a day and claiming to hear voices.

An attack on the village by marauding English soldiers results in the death of Joan’s sister, who gives up her hiding place for Joan, and she is understandably left traumatised, struggling to understand why God would permit this to happen, and why she should be spared and not her sister.

Some years pass before Joan, now in her late teens, presents herself at the court of the French Dauphin (John Malkovich), asking to be given an army so she can carry out God’s will and give the English the kicking they so clearly deserve. The court are, understandably, dubious, but they’re out of other ideas and Joan does seem to have a strange, otherworldly quality. And so she is given an army, and sent off to lift the siege of Orleans, not yet suspecting that she is an idealist in a deeply political world…

This is a long film (though not, perhaps, quite as long as it sometimes feels while you’re actually watching it) and almost Kubrickian in the way it naturally falls into a number of episodes, each with its own tone and style. Some of them are, needless to say, better than others, and none of them are really what you could call great. The opening sequence, with the young Joan having her first visions, is one of the best, with Besson conjuring up a real impression of ecstatic religious mania, as well as suggesting some serious issues such as survivor’s guilt.

Of course, the thing which sets the opening apart is that it doesn’t feature Milla Jovovich, and if you had to identify one thing that really scuppers The Messenger it’s the casting of Jovovich in the lead role. Joan of Arc runs a very broad gamut of emotions in the course of the film, at various points appearing as an innocent warrior, a holy fool, someone who experiences the heights of joy and the depths of horror and self-doubt. Jovovich’s performance largely consists of rolling her eyes a lot and squeaking. A goldfish at the bottom of the Mariana Trench would be less out of its depth than Milla Jovovich is here.

This is a bit of a shame, as – while you could hardly describe The Messenger as a completely coherent film – there are a lot of other things to enjoy here. Parts of the film are recognisably Bessonian in their stylish excess – the English soldiers are presented as enjoying a spot of casual necrophilia – and when the lengthy battle scenes get under way, you do get a sense of a director back in his comfort zone. There is a lot of mud, and crunch, and gore, and what they perhaps lack in scale they make up for in viscera. Even here, though, there’s a thin line between grisly, authentic spectacle, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the film is often closer to the latter than is perhaps comfortable.

Here and elsewhere, many fine actors from many different countries do their best to try and make up for the Jovovich deficit: Vincent Cassel, Tcheky Karyo, Richard Ridings, Timothy West, Faye Dunaway, and many other familiar faces. There is an authentic touch of the medieval grotesque about much of the film, and this extends to the performances too. John Malkovich, on the other hand, is at his most John Malkovichy as the aspiring king of France, who isn’t exactly sympathetically presented by the film (I suppose French film-makers will obviously have a different attitude to their royals than British ones).

Then again, it’s very hard to sympathise with Joan herself, though this is largely down to the Jovovich effect. What really doesn’t help is a conceit where Joan’s growing self-doubts manifest in the form of a shadowy figure with whom she engages in deep philosophical discussions about her beliefs and motives. He is played by Dustin Hoffman, who is obviously pretty good, but given all the eye-rolling and squeaking he’s acting against, an idea which could have seemed bold and imaginative just comes across as bizarre and even silly.

This is a slight shame, as Joan’s wrestling with her self-doubt (realised through the metaphor of the Hoffman character) really makes up the climax of the film – the concluding bonfire isn’t really dwelt upon, possibly wisely, but this does rob the film of a strong finish. One is left with a sense of a very odd film. In many ways this is a film which was ahead of its time – it anticipates the historical-combat-movie revival spawned by Gladiator only a year or so later, and attempts to say things about the uneasy alliance of politics and religious zealotry in wartime (topical indeed). It may ultimately be a failure, but you can’t fault its ambition.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published  September 4th 2003:

It’s usually a pretty good sign of a film’s success, both creatively and financially, if, within a year or two of its release knock-offs, pastiches and wannabes suddenly flood the multiplexes across the land. Most of the real mega-hits spawn their clouds of (usually) inferior clones, but one film I didn’t expect to trigger the same response was last year’s Ocean’s Eleven. A very slick, funny, stylish and entertaining film, to be sure, and one which I very much enjoyed, but not one I would’ve predicted as starting a trend.

Well, who’d’ve guessed it, but I was wrong again. Admittedly there haven’t been that many Ocean’s Eleven knock-offs, but they all indelibly bear the imprimatur of their inspiration, and James Foley’s Confidence is no exception, although one could equally well argue it owes debts to The Usual Suspects, Heat, and – inevitably – Tarantino.

Ed Burns plays Jake Vig, leader of a crack team of con-men working in Los Angeles. Their usual routine is polished and effective, until they unwittingly take the money of local nasty-piece-of-work the King, played by Dustin Hoffman. Dustin is understandably irked by this impudence and offs one of the team, prompting Jake to cut a deal: Jake and the gang will take Dustin’s rival Morgan Price (Robert Forster, woefully underused) for five million dollars and split the proceeds with him, thus settling their financial differences if nothing else. Supposedly to help with the job, but I suspect mainly because it’s a novel chat-up line, Jake also recruits raven-tressed pickpocket Lily (lovely lovely Rachel Weisz). And the stage is set for… well, dullness and confusion, actually.

This is mainly down to the writing, as you might expect. Writer Doug Jung apparently has some background in TV, but this is his first feature script and it kind of shows. Without wishing to be too unkind – some of the dialogue has a certain snap and crackle to it – I get the impression he really wished he’d written Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, etc, and decided to go ahead and kind of do so anyway. The tricky flashback structure, the multiple twists and use of cut-scenes, the occasional stylistic flourishes – we’ve really seen all of them before elsewhere.

Even so, lack of originality isn’t necessarily a sin. But this kind of caper movie should have a kind of swashbuckling flair to it, and be all about false moustaches and forged paintings and breaking into bank vaults by unlikely means. Confidence‘s big scam revolves around… wait for it… corporate law and procuring an iffy bank loan. That’s it, that’s the great challenge facing these characters. Jung tries to liven things up by stirring in subplots about Jake being chased by a vengeful federal agent (a grizzled-looking Andy Garcia) and Lily selling him out to his intended victim, but it really doesn’t help, because the script is fundamentally flawed. Some of the flashbacks actually happen, others are – in the context of the film – fictitious, but it’s not made clear which are which. The way the Garcia subplot is resolved basically reveals, if you think about it, that Jake is a really nasty piece of work. The obligatory twist ending is also actually sort of predictable.

However, a film isn’t just the work of the writer. Jake is clearly written as cool, commanding, charismatic, a combination of Clooney and de Niro. So it’s really a shame that Burns turns in a performance like Ben Affleck on valium, charmless and static. Paul Giamatti, as his neurotic sidekick, is really much more likeable and interesting. Rachel Weisz’s role is almost entirely decorative, not that I’m complaining too loudly (but they make her dye her hair red, for heaven’s sake!). The acting honours are undoubtedly stolen by Dustin Hoffman, playing a scabrous rodent of a man, capricious and weirdly menacing and possessed of a highly eccentric code of ethics (he gets to cop a feel of Weisz as well, as fine an incentive to take a part as any I can think of). As the film goes on he gets less and less to do, however.

As well as Hoffman, in its favour the film is reasonably well directed and the cinematography is excellent, grainy, vivid colours giving it a kind of neon-noir feel. The eclectic soundtrack is also something a plus, but on the whole this is very run-of-the-mill stuff, lacking originality and clarity. Confidence does not get my vote.

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